Hand Color tinted photo of Iron Bear a Yankton Dakota Sioux Native American Indian, 1904
Sioux (pronounced /suː/) are a Native American and First Nations people. The term can refer to any ethnic group within the Great Sioux Nation or any of the nation’s many dialects. The Sioux comprise three major divisions based on dialect and subculture:
Isanti (“Knifes,” originating from the name of a lake in present-day Minnesota): residing in the extreme east of the Dakotas, Minnesota, and northern Iowa, and are often referred to as the Santee or Eastern Dakota.
Ihanktowan-Ihanktowana (“Village-at-the-end” and “little village-at-the-end”): residing in the Minnesota River area, they are considered to be the middle Sioux, and are often referred to as the Yankton, or Western Dakota.
Teton or Tetonwan (uncertain, perhaps “Dwellers on the Prairie”): the westernmost Sioux, known for their hunting and warrior culture, and are often referred to as the Lakota.
Today, the Sioux maintain many separate tribal governments scattered across several reservations, communities, and reserves in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and also in Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan in Canada.
The historical Sioux referred to the Great Sioux Nation as the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (pronounced [oˈtʃʰetʰi ʃaˈkowĩ]), meaning “Seven Council Fires”. Each fire was symbolic of an oyate (people or nation). The seven nations that comprise the Sioux are: Bdewákaŋthuŋwaŋ (Mdewakanton), Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ (Wahpeton), Waȟpékhute (Wahpekute), Sisíthuŋwaŋ (Sisseton), the Iháŋkthuŋwaŋ (Yankton), Iháŋkthuŋwaŋna (Yanktonai), and the Teton (Lakota). The Seven Council Fires would assemble each summer to hold council, renew kinships, decide tribal matters, and participate in the Sun Dance. The seven divisions would select four leaders known as Wičháša Yatápika from among the leaders of each division. Being one of the four leaders was considered the highest honor for a leader; however, the annual gathering meant the majority of tribal administration was cared for by the usual leaders of each division. The last meeting of the Seven Council Fires was in 1850.
Today the Teton, Santee, and Ihantowan/Ihanktowana are usually known, respectively, as the Lakota, Eastern Dakota, or Western Dakota. In any of the three main dialects, “Lakota” or “Dakota” translate to mean “friend,” or more properly, “ally.” Usage of Lakota or Dakota may then refer to the alliance that once bound the Great Sioux Nation .
The historical political organization was based on the participation of individuals and the cooperation of many to sustain the tribe’s way of life. Leaders were chosen based upon noble birth and demonstrations of bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom.
Political leaders were members of the Načá Omníčiye society and decided matters of tribal hunts, camp movements, whether to make war or peace with their neighbors, or any other community action. Societies were similar to fraternities; men joined to raise their position in the tribe. Societies were composed of smaller clans and varied in number among the seven divisions. There were two types of societies: Akíčhita, for the younger men, and Naca, for elders and former leaders.
Akíčhita (“Warrior”) societies existed to train warriors, hunters, and to police the community. There were many smaller Akíčhita societies, including the Kit-Fox, Strong Heart, Elk, and so on. Leaders in the Načá societies, per Načá Omníčiye, were the tribal elders and leaders, who would elect seven to ten men, depending on the division, each referred to as Wičháša Itȟáŋčhaŋ (“chief man”). Each Wičháša Itȟáŋčhaŋ interpreted and enforced the decisions of the Načá.
The Wičháša Itȟáŋčhaŋ would elect two to four Shirt Wearers who were the voice of the society. They settled quarrels among families and also foreign nations. Shirt Wearers were often young men from families with hereditary claims of leadership. However, men with obscure parents who displayed outstanding leaderships skills and had earned the respect of the community might also be elected. Crazy Horse is an example of a common-born “Shirt Wearer”.
A Wakíčhuŋza (“Pipe Holder”) ranked below the “Shirt Wearers”. The Pipe Holders regulated peace ceremonies, selected camp locations, and supervised the Akíčhita societies during buffalo hunts.